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I heard this phrase in Tropic Thunder. This isn't the first time I've seen a character in a movie/TV show use you people and be accused of racism for it. If I remember correctly, this also appears in Anger Management.

I'm confused by this phenomenon, since to me you people refers to the group that is standing around the speaker.

So, why is you people interpreted as you people belonging to an ethnic group?

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7 Answers 7

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"You people" in that context always means "as opposed to my/most/ordinary people", and carries with it the implication "… who are not fully worthy of my/our/ordinary people's respect."

Be very sure, though, that context is king.

A team leader giving a simple instruction, "You people do this, while the others do that" carries no negative imputation at all. That might be more easily seen if the leader pointed at the first group while saying "You people do this…" then turned to the other group to say "while you people do that".

When it is derogatory, tension might be racial but it's just as likely to be about class, culture or politics, among other things.

If I'm left-wing, "you people" prolly means right. If I like classical music, YP might mean rock. If I'm rich or poor, YP might mean poor or rich… whatever you're not.

The phrase will usually cause offense but part of the point is that people using those words feel such a sense of entitlement, the offence seems to them to count for nothing.

Hopefully different constructions like "Come on, people…" or "you guys" or "you all" are so much more obviously general, they show how specifically pointed "you people" can be, in that context.

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    I upvoted and agree with everything said here. But while I agree with everything here and context is king, at least in the U.S., "you people" has a historical connections with race generally in a derogatory way. If encountered in in historical material or period fiction there is a very strong chance of racial implications unless context makes very clear otherwise. Aug 26, 2021 at 22:35
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    @RobbieGoodwin: The (left wing) American counterargument is, basically, "racism exists whether you like to acknowledge it or not." In the US, racism has played an extraordinarily ugly role for pretty much the entire history of the country. It is an indictment - of America as a whole, not of the specific individuals who make that interpretation.
    – Kevin
    Aug 27, 2021 at 8:39
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    @RobbieGoodwin Amusingly I have a minor in philosophy and I'm married to a historian. I suspect you will find many cultures have racist idioms, but that particular one has a very racist history in at least many contexts and yes that is an indictment of the culture it exists in. Also, especially with idioms, its hard to separate the language from the culture it exists in. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is relevant. While there are some non-racist usages in the real world, at least in U.S. historical contexts or period pieces, the derogatory racial implications are far more likely than not. Aug 27, 2021 at 15:44
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    @RobbieGoodwin It’s a joke about American racism and tokenism. In the movie, Robert Downie Jr. plays a white actor who had been hired to play the role of a black soldier, and his character is so over the top about acting that he undergoes surgery to make his skin black. So a white character says something about “you people” in a possibly racist way. Downie Jr’s character says, “what do you mean, ‘you people’?” As if to be offended by the racist, but he’s actually white. Then Jackson’s character, who is actually Black, says, “what do you mean, ‘you people’?” to Downie’s character. Aug 28, 2021 at 6:40
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    @RobbieGoodwin The point being, the racist history of the phrase is central to understanding its use in the scene in question. Obviously there’s a whole aspect of cultural appropriation and lack of representation. The movie overall is critical of Hollywood and how people of color and disabled people are represented in film. There’s just a lot to unpack in this movie. Aug 28, 2021 at 6:43
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You're right to pick up on a racial tension, perhaps because there's been a history of such use. But the phrase has a lot of potential for offense no matter the context. As Jack O'Flaherty pointed out, it draws a distinction between the person talking and the person they're talking to. It also generalizes: it creates a large, undefined group that the person or people being addressed represent or define. When this hypothetical group is drawn along lines that already define existing groups, the potential for offense or misunderstanding is even greater. "You're being so rude. I can't stand you people." What people? an ethnicity? a gender? a religion? left-handed people? I just broadened my argument from attacking only you to attacking an amorphous group that you may not enjoy representing.

Ben Stiller sets up the joke by choosing "you people" in a sentence that was clearly addressed only to those around him. But while this usage of "people" is not uncommon ("Come on, people, let's go!"), a different construction like "you guys" or "you all" would have been more obvious.

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    "I just broadened my argument from attacking only you to attacking an amorphous group that you may not enjoy representing" - Or it's attacking you based on the (often unfair) generalisations that have been made about the amorphous group they associate you with. I don't mind being referred to as a cyclist - for example - but if someone were to come at me with "You cyclists...", they're clearly trying to tar me with the same brush as the worst of the cyclists they've experienced and use that as a personal attack. Aug 26, 2021 at 11:29
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Contrast it with "we people", which places the speaker in the same group as those spoken to. "You people" implies that the speaker is not included in the group addressed.

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  • How does that work, Jack? "We…" I understand. "People like us…" I understand. "We, the people…" I understand, even when - was it in Protocol? - Goldie Hawn mangles the language to say "I am 'we the people'… " but "we people…" is outside my experience Aug 27, 2021 at 20:35
  • It's outside my experience too. It's an imaginary construct to highlight the meaning of you people in the sense of the OP. Aug 27, 2021 at 21:37
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In addition to what the other posters highlighted above, there is some loaded cultural context for this that relates to a specific public incident:

In 1992 during a United States Presidential campaign, independant third-party candidate Ross Perot gave a now famous (or infamous) speech to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), a leading civil rights organization in the USA. Although he was asking for their support in his campaign he notoriously achieved the opposite result by offending everyone through his use of "You People" to describe those he was addressing. This was picked up by many cartoonists and commented on extensively becoming something of a "meme" in those largely pre-internet times. In my opinion, a lot of the current sense of racial insensitivity (or worse) that comes from this usage stems from this incident. You can find the speech on YouTube and there are many news articles that a Google search returns that can give you more context for all of this if you are interested.

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  • Thanks. I'm initially thought that there just some historical context and not the language itself.
    – user224351
    Aug 26, 2021 at 23:01
  • A contemporary article about the incident: archive.seattletimes.com/archive/…
    – Tiercelet
    Aug 27, 2021 at 18:31
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    To me, the the racist connotations begin with the Ross Perot incident. A recent Newsone article suggests the same: "The billionaire's choice of words in 1992 all but gave birth to a reviled racial epithet for Black people.".
    – Hasse1987
    Aug 27, 2021 at 23:14
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tl;dr The term "you people" can reference an implicitly-specified nature of the listener apart from the speaker. This term can appear in socially-divisive speech as a mode of addressing a listener socially-divided from the speaker without the speaker having to explicitly state the nature of the social-division.


Background: The term "you" and further qualifications to it.

The term "you" references the listener. In the absence of further qualification, it's often taken to reference the listener as a person.

However, further qualifications can be added. Qualifications can serve two purposes:

  1. Qualify a sub-group of listeners.

    • For example, if a manager is addressing a large group of employees, they might say

      You engineers design the new system.

      to address the listeners who're engineers, rather than others who might be listening.

  2. Qualify the nature of the listener to be addressed.

    • For example, if Alice is speaking to Bob, if Alice wants to address Bob as a member of some group rather than as a person, Alice might say stuff like:

      • You men [...]

      • You people who like video-games [...]

      • You Americans [...]

      • You who think it's funny when kittens bat at yarn [...]

      In those examples, Alice is addressing some nature of Bob's rather than identifying Bob from other listeners.

Alternatively, we can say that the two different usages above are actually the same thing: in both cases, the speaker is addressing some nature of the listeners, filtering out listeners who lack that nature. For example,

You engineers go design the new system.

is speaking to the nature of the listeners as engineers, presumably filtering those who lack such a nature as they have no such identity to hear it.


The term "you people" references the listener with further, implicit qualifications.

Literally, "you people" speaks to the nature of listeners as "people".

One idiomatic usage of this is basically a variant of "you guys", e.g.

  1. Oh, you people are so sweet! Thank you so much!

  2. Oh, you guys are so sweet! Thank you so much!

, where the speaker is basically thinking of the listeners as a group apart from themself, and the qualifiers "people" or "guys" can serve to stress that distinction.

Note: In modern American-English, "guys" would tend to be preferred over "people" in most cases of the above.

In the above case, the speaker refers to others as "people" or "guys" without explicitly qualifying what they mean by that. If we were to show the hidden implicit qualifications, then it might be something like

  1. Oh, you people [who gave me this wonderful gift] are so sweet [for having shown me affection or similar appreciation through having given me this wonderful gift]! [I] Thank you so much [for the wonderful gift that you gave me]!

  2. Oh, you guys [who gave me this wonderful gift] are so sweet [for having shown me affection or similar appreciation through having given me this wonderful gift]! [I] Thank you so much [for the wonderful gift gave me]!

, though generally it's not necessary to be so verbose because listeners can infer the implicit wording.

Point being, the term "you people" references the listener with further, implicit qualifications.


About negative cultural associations with "you people".

As explained above, the term "you people" refers to the listener with some implicit-qualifications.

This term can be especially useful to speakers who'd like to stress an implicit-qualification that they rather not state explicitly. In bitter, adversarial exchanges, it might convey an implicit-qualification of the listener as they differ from the speaker.

Often such implicit-qualifications can involve race, social-class, political-affiliation, religion, or other social-framework with problematic divisiveness.


Summary.

In short, the term "you people" can reference an implicitly-specified nature of the listener apart from the speaker. Because this term can be useful in addressing a listener in a socially-adversarial context, some have associated the term to socially-divisive speech.

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The other answers are making this waaay too complicated.

"You people" roughly means "you and the group you are in", sometimes with a slightly negative connotation.

In the movie clip you posted, the joke is that the sergeant is referring to the black soldier's membership in the group of soldiers, but the black soldier interprets it as meaning the black soldier's membership in the group of black people.

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    Well, the real heart of the joke (a controversial portrayal) is that Robert Downey Jr. (a white person in blackface) responds as though he were black ("What do you mean you people"), and the actual african american responds, "What do you mean you people?"
    – Kirk Woll
    Aug 28, 2021 at 15:53
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This is a pet peeve of mine. Saying "you people" is racist or somehow reductive is similar to saying you are with us or against us. You are creating adversaries where none exist.

I live in New Jersey and we don't say y'all. More often than not in the northeastern United States, "you people" means the second person plural.

Years ago I saw a Jewish scholar speak at Howard University and he clearly used "you people" to mean the second person plural but many of the students looked at each other and smiled. They had evidently been taught that this gave them license to conclude that this man was a racist.

When a person speaks you must consider what he or she is trying to say. There are no keywords that allow you to label someone for using them.

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  • Can you people explain the down-vote?
    – John Douma
    Aug 30, 2021 at 0:27

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